I’ve often wondered: If, on the unlikely chance I had the privilege of interviewing William F. Buckley Jr., what questions would I ask? I decided I would ask not a single question about his political or economic views because I would know in advance how he would reply. For decades, Buckley has made his opinions on such topics abundantly clear. The questions I would ask would be about his faith.
I put down “Nearer, My God” with unbounded admiration for Buckley’s courage and honesty and the depth of his piety. There is not a trace of hypocrisy in his book. I also came away with the sad realization that Buckley is guilty of what has been called the sin of willful ignorance. He has never considered it worthwhile to learn much about modern science or recent biblical criticism, much of it by Catholic scholars. He has made little effort to think through the implications of his beliefs in the light of such readily available knowledge.
This, regretfully, is a position common among many Christians today. We live at a time when most people, famous or otherwise, are extremely shy about revealing their religious beliefs. It has long been true that if someone tells you he or she is a Protestant, that tells you nothing about what the person believes. Today, a Protestant can have opinions that vary from the fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell to the pantheism of Paul Tillich.
In recent decades, this has become increasingly true of Catholics. There may be unity in the Vatican, but among the church’s theologians and priests, as well as among laymen around the world, there is a widening spectrum of conflicting opinions.
On the right of Catholicism’s continuum are the orthodox. They take the Bible to be the inerrant word of God when properly interpreted. They believe their church is the one true faith, its popes tracing back to Peter. They are certain that the great miracles of both testaments took place as described, and that miracles continue to occur although, for reasons known only to God, less frequently. They believe that God continually reveals new truths to his church, and that popes are infallible when they announce new doctrines.
On the far left of the spectrum are the liberals. The most radical see the Bible as swarming with historical errors. They deny papal infallibility, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the virgin birth and other doctrines that have long been central to Catholic faith. On most religious questions, they have little disagreement with liberal Protestants and Reform Jews. One wonders why they choose to remain Catholics. Their response is that the church they love is capable of change and they wish to remain in order to help change it.
In between these extremes are moderates with all shades of belief. In past ages, Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, held a surprising unity of opinions. Even Martin Luther and John Calvin had few disagreements with the pope over basic doctrines like the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Today, the certainty that members of a particular church share the exact same views applies only to fundamentalis or evangelical Protestant churches, or to such sects as Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But a typical mainline Protestant church today is like a box of tacks pointing in all directions. This is slowly becoming true of Catholic congregations. Many attend Mass from force of habit. Having been raised in their faith, they find it comforting to practice the old familiar rituals, smell the incense, enjoy the music, and even to recite creeds they no longer take seriously.
Everywhere on the Christian front there is this infuriating vagueness. Consider, for example, Christianity’s fundamental belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus: not his appearance in visions, but the actual vanishing of his corpse from the tomb--a risen Christ so real that doubting Thomas could put a finger into the holes in the Lord’s palms. We know that Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell believe this. Did Norman Vincent Peale? Does Robert Schuller? Do Father Andrew Greeley and Garry Wills?
Life beyond the grave was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Did Reinhold Niebuhr, our nation’s great Protestant theologian, share this belief in an afterlife? Amazingly, nobody knows. I once tried to find out by writing to his widow. She refused to tell me. Perhaps even she didn’t know. She advised me to read her husband’s books and let them speak for themselves. Alas, they give no hint of what he believed about immortality.
A similar fog saturates liberal Catholic opinions, especially the status of the Virgin Mary. Hans Kung, the influential Swiss theologian, holds views that differ in no essential way from those of liberal Protestants. His good friend Greeley, a University of Chicago sociologist and popular Catholic author, is even harder to pin down. He once wrote an article about Mary for the New York Times Magazine. It was called “Hail Mary: A revival of devoted interest in the only religious symbol asserting the femininity of the Ultimate.” Yet nowhere in this hymn to Mary did Greeley disclose his opinions on the virgin birth, the Immaculate Conception, Mary’s perpetual virginity or her assumption into heaven.
Father Frederick Copleston was the Jesuit author of a splendid multivolume history of philosophy, as well as a book about St. Thomas Aquinas and other works reflecting his early Thomism. In later years, he turned away from Aquinas toward a Hegelian approach to philosophy. When he died in 1994, no one had the slightest notion of what he believed about any major dogma of his faith.
In light of all this doctrinal fuzziness, I have wondered for decades about where Buckley stood. The reader longs for insight into his theological opinions because he is one of the nation’s most influential conservatives and an outspoken Catholic. I always read him with pleasure, even when I disagreed with him, because he writes so provocatively and so well. When I saw on sale his 39th book, “Nearer, My God,” I bought it at once. Would I find out at long last, I hoped, exactly what sort of Catholic he was and is?
I was not disappointed. We know now, as only Buckley’s wife, relatives and best friends have known, that Buckley is not only orthodox, he is ultraorthodox.
On more peripheral matters, which seem to be the only ones ever covered by the media, Buckley objects to Vatican II’s replacement of the Latin Mass with the “heartbreakingly awful English translation.” He even disapproves of the lifting of the ban on Friday meat eating. He follows his church in opposing abortion and birth control (except for the rhythm method), the ordination of women and the refusal (at least for now) to allow priests to marry.
Although I finished reading “Nearer, My God” with the satisfaction of finally learning that Buckley is more conservative a Catholic than he is a political conservative, a number of nagging questions remain.
How literally does Buckley take the Genesis account of creation and the fall? He was interviewed about his book on “Firing Line.” Asked where original sin came from, he replied that it came from the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, “when Adam ate the apple.” He cited G.K. Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man” as a reference. Does Buckley take the story of the fall metaphorically? Genesis does not specify the kind of fruit involved, but does Buckley go along with C.S. Lewis in thinking that the curse of original sin arose because Adam and Eve ate some kind of forbidden fruit that grew on some kind of mysterious tree?
Further, does Buckley believe that Adam was formed out of the dust of the Earth and that Eve was fabricated from one of Adam’s ribs, or does he accept the evolution of human bodies? Nowhere in his book does he speak of evolution. Does he buy the prevailing view today among Catholic theologians (it is probably also the present pope’s view) that human bodies did indeed evolve from ape-like ancestors, but that there was a sharp discontinuity when God infused immortal souls into the first human pair or first pairs? If so, this entails believing that the earliest true humans were reared and suckled by soulless beasts. Pat Buchanan is on record as rejecting evolution altogether, as did Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and so many earlier Catholic apologists. It would be interesting to know where Buckley stands on this question.
Sir Arnold Lunn was also a vigorous opponent of evolution. In his book “Flight From Reason,” he bashes H.G. Wells, frequently quotes Chesterton and has high praise for George McCready Price. Price was a Seventh-day Adventist and self-styled “geologist” who believed the entire universe was created in six days, about 10,000 years ago, and that fossils are relics of life destroyed by Noah’s flood. Lunn grants that trivial evolution may have taken place within species (such as cats and dogs), however "[i]t is not only possible, but probable, that God created different species. . . .”
Lunn was a good friend and admirer of the pugnacious British journalist Alfred Watterson McCann, whose book “God--Or Gorilla” (1922) is perhaps the most foolish book on evolution ever written by a Catholic. It has great pictures of apes and a photograph of what McCann claims is a fossil shoe-print from the Triassic period!
As late as 1950, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical saying that Catholics must believe that all humankind descended from Adam, not from a number of first parents. Original sin, he argued, “proceeds from sin actually committed by an individual Adam, and which through generations is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.” Is this also Buckley’s opinion?
From what he has written, we know that Buckley believes in angels. Does he also believe in Satan and the other fallen angels? The devil and his demons are curiously absent from Buckley’s confessional. He must believe in demons because the Gospels tell how Jesus cast them out of people possessed by them. In one memorable incident recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke, 2,000 devils were forced by the Lord to abandon a naked man and enter a herd of pigs. The poor pigs ran into the sea of Galilee and drowned. Does Buckley think people are demon-possessed today, and that his church has the power of exorcism?
Although Buckley admits that he is no theologian, one would have expected him at least to glance into books by Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, or by such Protestant heavyweights as Karl Barth and Niebuhr. Has he investigated the theology of Kung? He seems equally indifferent to the writings of such philosophical theists as Immanuel Kant, William James, Ralph Barton Perry, Miguel de Unamuno and the contemporary John Hick.
Because I am interested mainly in Buckley’s religious views, I will be minimally concerned with biographical facts. Born into a devout and wealthy Catholic family, the sixth of 10 children, Buckley dedicated his book to his mother, whom he considers a saint. For decades, he tells us, he delayed writing a confessional but finally decided to undertake it. Why? He answers in a sentence that, amusingly, sounds like the last three lines of a limerick:
The reason for this
You can probably guess:
I felt I owed something to God.
Buckley’s only child, Christopher, was raised a Catholic, but Pat, his Episcopalian wife, has not converted. Buckley writes that he has never “exerted pressure” on her to join his church. Indeed, even while conversing with non-Catholic friends or when writing his newspaper columns or his many books, he has considered it bad taste to talk about his religion: “I am not remotely qualified as a theologian or historian of Christianity.” (Buckley’s 1951 book, “God and Man at Yale,” was a scorching attack on Yale for having abandoned God. He was roundly criticized for not mentioning anywhere in his book that he was an ardent Catholic.) He comes through in “Nearer, My God” as a person raised a Catholic who has never doubted the church’s essential doctrines. “My faith has not wavered,” he states in his introduction.
Buckley retells Anatole France’s story about Barnabas, a poor street juggler who, after becoming a monk, performed his juggling act before an altar’s image of Mary. “If I could juggle,” Buckley adds, “I’d do so for Our Lady. I suppose I am required to say that, in fact, I have here endeavored to do my act for her.”
When Buckley declares that his church is “unique” in having a “vision that has not changed in two thousand years,” he means it has never abandoned such fundamental doctrines as the incarnation, virgin birth, atonement and resurrection of Jesus. But these doctrines are also shared by conservative and fundamentalist Protestants. With respect to doctrines peculiar to Catholicism, the Roman church has changed enormously.
This is especially true with respect to Mariolatry. Mary’s immaculate conception, for instance, is nowhere mentioned in the Bible. The notion that Mary was born without the taint of original sin was not infallibly declared a dogma until it was proclaimed by Pope Pius IV in 1854. Aquinas and other eminent medieval scholars had vigorously opposed it. Aquinas even quoted passages from the Gospels in which Jesus treated his mother with obvious disrespect. When Jesus began attracting enormous crowds with his charismatic preaching, we are told in Matthew, Mark and Luke, his mother and siblings, unable to get near him because of the throng, sent a message saying they wanted to talk to him. Did he respond by asking his followers to let them through? He did not. Instead he stretched a hand toward the multitude and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, which is in heaven, the same is my brother and sister, and mother.”
To take another example, during the marriage ceremony at Cana we are told in John 2:1-4 that Mary approached her son to tell him they had run out of wine. Jesus rebuked her: “Woman [not mother], what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.” St. Paul, whose Letters predate the Gospels, also never mentions the virgin birth. His only reference to Mary is when he speaks in Galatians 4:4 of Jesus having been “born of a woman.”
The Roman church has never ceased in elevating Mary ever higher toward the status of a goddess. In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the doctrine, also nowhere in the Bible nor championed by the early church fathers, that Mary did not die a natural death. Like Enoch, Elijah and Jesus, her physical body never moldered in a grave. It was carried directly to heaven. Today there is growing pressure by Catholics to persuade the Vatican to make Mary a co-redeemer with Christ. I do not expect this to happen. If it does, it will be a blunder greater than the condemnation of Galileo. It will forever kill all hopes of ecumenicism.
Buckley has always been fascinated by Catholic converts, especially those from Protestant backgrounds. To gather material for “Nearer, My God” he brought together what he calls his “Forum"--thinkers who converted to Rome. To each he asked a series of sharp questions about their beliefs. He apologizes for not being able to include his friend Clare Boothe Luce (“one of the liveliest minds I ever knew”), but she was too ill. Convert Malcolm Muggeridge was also too sick, although Buckley later devotes a chapter of high praise to him.
The Forum consisted of Father Richard John Neuhaus and Father George Rutler, both former Lutheran pastors; Russell Kirk, the well-known conservative writer; Jeffrey Hart, a senior editor at Buckley’s National Review; Ernest Van den Haag, a sociologist; and Wick Allison, former National Review publisher. In their responses, all defend the great miracles of the Bible, including, above all, the bodily resurrection of the Lord. To my amazement, Kirk even calls the Shroud of Turin “the most wondrous of all relics” and “possibly” the actual shroud of the crucified Jesus! (Buckley may share this view. An editorial in his National Review from September 1981 concluded that the shroud was genuine to “a degree of probability that would have impressed David Hume.”)
But the strangest chapter in “Nearer, My God” is devoted to a lurid account of the Crucifixion excerpted from an English translation of a five-volume life of Christ by Maria Valtorta (1897-1961), an Italian mystic. Titled “The Poem of the Man-God,” a book once listed on the Roman church’s Index of Forbidden Books because of its claims, Valtorta obtained her tens of thousands of details about the life of the Lord from visions that she firmly believed were channeled through her by the Holy Spirit. I had never before heard of this bizarre work. I hope never to hear of it again.
To Buckley’s credit, he does not accept Valtorta’s visions as authentic, but he is so fascinated by how she handled the excruciating details of the Lord’s suffering that he squanders 18 pages in quoting them: “My decision, then, is that in the only book on the faith I will ever put together I don’t want to deprive the reader of what I view, notwithstanding its crudity--perhaps because of it?--as an artful portrayal of the great historical event that preceded, and led to, the Resurrection, a depiction if not inspired by God, inspiring nonetheless.”
It is difficult for me to imagine anyone finding Valtorta’s account inspiring. I found it stomach-turning. Here is a small segment:
“The sufferings are worse and worse. The body begins to suffer from the arching typical of tetanus and the clamour of the crowd exasperates it. The death of fibres and nerves extends from the tortured limbs to the trunk, making breathing more and more difficult, diaphragmatic contraction weak and heart beating irregular. The face of Christ passes, in turns, from very deep-red blushes to the greenish paleness of a person bleeding to death. His lips move with greater difficulty because the overstrained nerves of the neck and of the head itself, that for dozens of times have acted as a lever for the whole body, pushing on the cross bar, spread the cramp also to the jaws. His throat, swollen by the obstructed carotid arteries, must be painful and must spread its edema to the tongue, which looks swollen and slow in its movements. His back, even in the moments when the tetanising contractions do not bend it in a complete arch from the nape of His neck to His hips, leaning at extreme points against the stake of the cross, bends more and more forward because the limbs are continuously weighed down by the burden of the dead flesh.”
Valtorta’s vision continues, agonizingly, with a clinical air that seems taken straight from the pages of a medical book on internal medicine.
In addition to his Forum converts, Buckley also displays great admiration for others who, as he informs us that the British like to say, “poped”: John Henry Newman, Gilbert Chesterton, Heywood Broun, to name a few. Many pages are devoted to a debate between convert Father Ronald Knox, a leading Catholic apologist in England, and Lunn, a prolific journalist who at the time was highly skeptical of Catholicism. Their exchange of letters, in which Lunn raised questions and Knox replied, was published in 1934 as a now-forgotten book called “Difficulties.” Later, Buckley and Lunn became good friends and skiing companions. Lunn’s last book, before he died in 1974, is dedicated to Buckley and his wife, Pat.
Some of the excellent questions raised by Lunn were: How can free will be harmonized with God’s complete knowledge of the future? How can irrational evil, such as deaths from earthquakes, be reconciled with an all-powerful, all-merciful deity? How can a church, supposedly guided by God, justify the horrors of the Inquisition or the sale of indulgences? How can the church justify failing to be in the vanguard that opposed slavery? Above all, how can the church defend the extreme cruelty of Jehovah? Here is how Lunn phrased one letter: “If every part in the Bible is equally inspired, we are forced to identify the God of the Psalms, the God of Isaiah, and the God of St. John with the barbarous and anthropomorphic Jehovah--a god who is angry and who repents, a god who demands blood sacrifices, a god who approves of the murder of women and children, a god who, in brief, represents at every point the most complete contrast with the God of the New Testament.”
Knox does his best to counter Lunn’s strong objections. To the paragraph just quoted, he replies that the Bible was written by men who were not divine, but only fallible transcribers. Passages in the Bible have no “plain meaning.” This is why we need a divinely guided church to interpret verses that can be disputed. “The whole of the Bible is immune from errors,” writes Knox, “but we must have a living church to interpret it correctly.”
Buckley, of course, always sides with Knox. To everyone’s surprise in England, two years after his debate, Lunn converted to Catholicism and was received into the church by Knox! The story of his conversion is told in his 1933 book, “Now I See.”
As a non-Christian theist, I thought Lunn raised powerful objections to the faith and that Knox gave feeble answers. This is especially true of their exchange on the notion that God will punish some sinners with everlasting torments in hell. Buckley expresses hope that hell may someday be empty, and he takes comfort from Knox’s statement that no one will suffer in hell who doesn’t deserve it. There is no indication that Buckley is troubled by the Pauline doctrine that it is not good works that qualify one for heaven, but a belief that Jesus is the son of God and the world’s savior. Paul even adds the proviso that to escape damnation one must also believe God raised Jesus from the dead! Nor is he troubled by the fact that for centuries his church taught that no one would enter heaven who had not been baptized a Catholic. There were even instruments for baptizing babies in the mother’s womb if it was suspected that the child might not survive birth.
Lewis Carroll, a devout Anglican, wrote a pamphlet bashing the doctrine of eternal punishment. He said that if he believed for a moment that Jesus had actually taught such a dreadful dogma, he would instantly cease to be a Christian. Asked if that meant he thought even Satan would eventually be saved, he replied that he did indeed believe this. Buckley makes a somewhat similar vow:
“If, per impossible, it were established that Christ did not rise, I would myself instantly enlist in the Judaic faith, whose heaviest burden would then be not Jonah and the whale, but the blemish brought on Judaism by the fake Jesus who went around citing the Old Testament as his patrimony, claiming he was God. I would then, in Judaism, still be united with the prophets, and settled down for the promised incarnation, sometime in the future.”
What strange remarks! If a Christian ever became convinced that the New Testament was fake history, Buckley thinks it reasonable that he or she should then retain a faith in the accuracy of history in the Old Testament! Is it possible Buckley actually believes that God once drowned every man, woman and child, except for one undistinguished family, because he was angry with the humans he had created?
Regretfully, “Nearer, My God” has little to say about Old Testament history. What does Buckley think, I wonder, about a God who orders Abraham to murder his son? How would Abraham know it was God speaking and not Satan? If the story of Abraham and Isaac is an allegory, what message does it teach? What moral can he find in God commanding Moses to murder all the men, women and children of a neighboring tribe, but keep the virgin girls as slaves? What does he make of a God who destroys Moses’ nephews with lightning bolts, like an angry Zeus, because the boys failed to mix properly the incense for an animal sacrifice?
Or what about Jephthah’s murder of his beloved daughter merely to carry out a stupid vow? If this was an evil deed, why does Paul speak in Hebrews of Jephthah as a man of great faith? One would have expected Buckley to say that if he abandoned orthodox Catholicism, he would be content with a more liberal version of Christianity, or perhaps a philosophical theism similar to the faith of our nation’s founders. To suppose that a Catholic, unable to believe that Jesus’ tomb became empty, should turn to the vengeful, loutish Jehovah of the Old Testament is a thought that boggles my mind.
Here are some Catholic beliefs that Buckley has never doubted: the essence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, papal infallibility, the Incarnation, the Atonement (“The best way to put it, is that God would give His life for us and, in Christ, did.”), original sin, hell, the trinity, the virgin birth, the Immaculate Conception, the assumption of Mary, and the healing miracles of Jesus that Buckley believes still happen today in such sacred spots as Lourdes.
In 1990, I heard Madonna interviewed on television. Asked if she was a Catholic, she replied, “Sort of.” Although not a practicing Catholic, she added, “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” Kung, Greeley and millions of other Catholics around the world are “sort of” Catholics. There is nothing “sort of” about Buckley. Unlike politicians who pretend to be Catholics to get votes (the young Jack Kennedy could never have been elected senator in Massachusetts if he had declared himself an ex-Catholic), Buckley, in contrast, is the authentic true believer. He means every word he says.
“Nearer, My God” is a tribute to the awesome power of a great religious tradition to undergo uncritical transmission from parents to offspring. It will be interesting to see how Catholic reviewers respond to this passionate book. I was surprised to note that the only blurb on the back cover is by Charles Colson, a convert from the shenanigans of Watergate to evangelical Protestantism.